Recorded on November 28, 2023 as part of the UC Berkeley Social Science Matrix “Authors Meet Critics” series, this panel focused on Gramsci at Sea, a book by Sharad Chari, Associate Professor in Geography and Co-Director of Critical Theory at UC Berkeley. Professor Chari was joined in conversation by Leslie Salzinger, Associate Professor and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley, and Colleen Lye, Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley. The panel was moderated by James Vernon, Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor of History at UC Berkeley.
The panel was co-sponsored by Social Science Matrix, the UC Berkeley Department of Geography, and the Program in Critical Theory. The Social Science Matrix “Authors Meet Critics” book series features lively discussions about recently published books authored by social scientists at UC Berkeley. For each event, the author discusses the key arguments of their book with fellow scholars.
About the Book
How might an oceanic Gramsci speak to Black aquafuturism and other forms of oceanic critique? This succinct work reads Antonio Gramsci’s writings on the sea, focused in his prison notes on waves of imperial power in the inter-war oceans of his time. Professor Chari argues that the imprisoned militant’s method is oceanic in form, and that this oceanic Marxism can attend to the roil of sociocultural dynamics, to waves of imperial power, as well as to the capacity of Black, Drexciyan, and other forms of oceanic critique to “storm” us on different shores.
[MARION FOURCADE] Hello, everybody. Welcome to Social Science Matrix. My name is Marion Fourcade. I’m the director here.
So we welcome you today to think with Sharad Chari’s new work that travels across continents to engage Antonio Gramsci’s work as oceanic in scope, considering not only what makes a thinker, as a person at sea, but also how Gramsci can help us think about the imperial and capitalist crisis that strike our common seas today in the face of environmental disaster, overfishing, global warming, and sea rise.
So while such thinking about the sea is necessarily pessimistic, one can only hope as Gramsci is often cited to have some optimism of the will. Today’s event is part of our author meets critics series, which you’re probably used to them, which is a series that features critically engaged discussions about a recent book by Berkeley faculty. And we are very grateful to our co-sponsors and the program in critical theory and the Department of Geography.
As always, I will mention a few upcoming events. So later this week, I don’t know if it’s on the– yeah, so exactly. Later this week we will feature graduate student work on a panel entitled new directions in gender and sexuality.
And then next week we will have our final author meets critics of the semester to discuss Trevor Jackson’s book Impunity and Capitalism. And we will round up the semester with a lecture by Elizabeth Joh as part of our partnership with the Berkeley Institute for Data Science.
And we will start next semester with another author meets critic, which will be Andrew Garrett. So stay tuned for the whole schedule for the next semester, which Julia has been preparing with great care. So we’ll have a fabulous programming next semester.
Today we will have a slightly different format from what you’re used to. There will be less presenting and more conversation. So Sharad will briefly present the book, and then Colleen and Leslie will ask him questions about it before we open up to the general Q&A.
So before that, though, I would like to introduce our distinguished moderator James. So James Vernon is the Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor of History here at Berkeley. He’s a historian of Britain and its empire with broad comparative and theoretical interests in the relationships between the political and the social as well as the nation and the world.
His books include Politics and the People from 1993, Hunger, a Modern History from 2007, Distant Strangers, How Britain Became Modern from 2014, and the last volume of the Cambridge History of Britain, Britain Since 1750 to the Present, which came out in 2017. And he is currently writing a book about the racialized and globalized formation of neoliberalism in Britain after empire told through Heathrow Airport. So without further ado, I turn it over to James and the panelists.
[JAMES VERNON] Thank you, Marion. And that’s really embarrassing because I’m not going to introduce any of our distinguished panelists in that way at all. So my apologies. I’m just so excited that you’re all here. Welcome. I think this is going to be a really fascinating conversation.
To me, this is a really important event because I couldn’t really sit at a table in Berkeley with three people that I could value more as friends and as comrades and as intellectual interlocutors. And it’s a real pleasure to sit here and let them go at it.
The other pleasure for me is as my three friends know, I spend a lot of time on the water. So thinking about the sea and living around the sea is something that I take very, very seriously. But I also grew up in the shadow of Gramsci in many ways because the Prison Notebooks were translated into English I think in the early ’70s.
And when I was an undergrad at University in Britain, we were all engaging through Stuart Hall with thinking about the very particular crises of welfare capitalism in the Global North through Hall’s work and using Gramsci to do that. So to be able to think at this time around the very specific conjuncture of crises that we have and to return to Gramsci through Sharad is a real privilege and a pleasure.
And if you haven’t bought this book, it’s worth every cent. We don’t know how much it’s cost, but go buy it. It has the great virtue of being small enough that you can put it in your back pocket or on a coat and it travels with you. So let me introduce the three of them without reeling off all of their publications and work.
Sharad teachers in geography as I’m sure you all know alongside this book that came out earlier this year. He is about to publish the absolutely brilliant and amazing apartheid remains, which I’ve had the privilege of reading, which is coming out with Duke in a few months, I would imagine.
And he’s also hard at work on his next one, which is written with and about the South African Black lesbian activist Beverley Ditsie. So yeah, very characteristic of the way that Sharad works very capaciously across continents and around different forms of intellectual and political work.
Leslie, who I think will start us off after Sharad has talked for 5 or 10 minutes, teaches in gender and women’s studies, but mainly is basically Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at the moment and is doing that amazing work that people sometimes have to do. Leslie works on– she’s a sociologist by training. All three of these people have Berkeley PhDs, by the way, which is, sort of, amazing. You do, right?
Oh, anyway. Yeah, sorry. They almost have Berkeley PhDs. Leslie is a sociologist by training. She works on the gendering and globalization of economic life. And her field work is primarily located in Mexico. Her first book Genders in Production explored the making of gendered work on the factory floor. And her new book is looking at a different type of gendered production on the currency exchange markets of Mexico City.
And finally, Colleen teaches in English, where she teaches about Asian-American literature. But mainly, she teaches about Marxism these days. Her first book America’s Asia analyzed the racial form of American literature after Chinese exclusion. And she’s currently writing about Asian-American contributions to Marxism, to racial capitalism, and to social reproduction.
So the format is going to be this. Sharad is going to talk for about 10 minutes, and then we’re going to begin a conversation between the three of them. It’s not going to be formal responses from Leslie and Colleen.
I’m thinking that we’ll stop around 1 o’clock, so you’ll have time to join the conversation. But if folks have to leave by 1:00 and you have things that you want to contribute to the conversation as it develops, will you just let me know so I can bring you in? Because I don’t want those people who have to leave at 1:00, I don’t want you to miss out the opportunity of joining the conversation. So Sharad, with no more ado, over to you.
[SHARAD CHARI] Thank you. First of all, thanks, everyone. Thanks for coming. Thanks to Matrix, to Julia, and Marion, and Chuck. And thanks to my comrades here, and I couldn’t– I feel like I could spend my 10 minutes speaking about how amazing these three people are and how it’s a confluence of personal, political, and intellectual interest and affection that brings us together. And I’m buttering them up because they’re going to skewer me properly in a couple of minutes.
So I’m going to jump into– I’m going to read a little bit from the beginning, and then I’m just going to lay out some of the main– some of the key arguments. And I begin with a sentence, really, from Srinivas Aravamudan in one of his last articles before his passing away. And so here it is.
“The shadow of tomorrow’s impending ecological disaster leaps over today and reunites with abandoned conceptions of human finitude from a past rich with apocalyptic nightmares that the enlightenment had temporarily vanquished. In a lucid charge to critique our imperiled present in relation to prior forms of consciousness that also faced human finitude, Aravamudan diagnoses the past and present through a slow unfolding of a determinate future.
This temporal structure offers no easy consolations of recuperating prior struggles, no reassurance that the negation of imperial catastrophe is forthcoming, and yet we witness the progressivist hopes bequeathed by the enlightenment being inexorably undone.
I add, with Gramsci in mind, that in this process of slow decay, enlightenment legacies reveal their contradictions well out into the horizon as we reach into dangerous waters of the near future to imagine what critique might yet be. This cautiously recursive structure of thought encapsulates Antonio Gramsci’s life work and in particular his political hope against the fascist high tide.
In a literal sense, the oceanic crisis of our time is planetary just as the planetary crisis is oceanic, as it links crises bequeathed by waves of capital and imperialism. But these turgid conjunctures of natural disaster are also persistent wellsprings of political hope against despair despite their best attempts not to be. While Gramsci wrote little about the oceans, what he did write recasts in his thought in useful ways.”
This is fundamentally what I’m exploring here in this pamphlet really. And the pamphlet form allows one to be a little bit audacious and go beyond the limits of reasonable arguments. So I invite disagreement and conversation. That’s, I think, with the pamphlet form is meant for.
So the first chapter tries to elaborate on this thesis by– the first chapter is called Gramsci and the Sea, and it reads his notes, his ocean of notes that would have been linked in hypertext had they been written today and reading along maritime oceanic seafarer seems to find all sorts of surprises, including, for instance, that he thought of the emergence of the Pax Americana through the sinews of British maritime imperial power. That’s quite an exciting– in the Indo-Pacific, from the Pacific, actually.
But also I also make the argument that we can think of his form of thought as oceanic. And I try to read that important for Gramscians here. I was getting to the weeds a bit, the note 17 in notebook 13, which is the key methodological note in which he thinks about the eruption of the organic on the terrain of the conjunctural. And what does that mean, and how can we think of that as an oceanic form of argument?
Also, his way of thinking with Marx’s 1859 preface about the problem spaces that are resurgent in particular times. So I try to use all this, and I also think about one of his last letters to his son, his little baby son, asking him to regard the life of the teeming life of the ocean, a beautiful line. Also, in a way about the ocean itself and the living ocean.
So what might his oceanic Marxism be? That’s what I turn to in the second essay, which is called The Oceanic Question. And the reference is to his early heuristic the Southern question, which is a heuristic in which he starts to explore the ensemble of categories that he then elaborates on and transforms throughout his life.
Also, he says that when he thinks about the Southern question, that he is thinking– that the Southern question in Italy is the agrarian question and the question of the Vatican. And I’ve wondered, as have others, about his relationship to the agrarian question, and what Lenin he had read, and whether he had read Neo-Lenin’s magisterial development of capitalism in Russia, which was so important in the 1980s, ’90s revival of agrarian studies and agrarian Marxism.
And particularly as a nonlinear and non-teleological engagement with differentiation and difference and differentiation in agrarian capitalism and capitalism more generally, there are major limits to thinking about– there are some limits to thinking about the oceans analogously to agrarian capitalism.
One major one being that the limits to capital and imagining an oceanic green revolution, except when one thinks about if one thinks of industrial agriculture is also a graveyard of a site for the remains the wastes of fossil fuel toxins, that’s what the oceans are writ large in some ways as well, toxic waste dumps.
Which then leads me to neologisms that have tried to think about these issues. The notion of the blue economy and of extractivism, one industry category, if you will, and the other an activist category. And I think about the efficacy of these categories.
And that leads me to essay three, which is that there’s an underlying issue here, which is what Marx calls the critique of political economy. That is, how do we think of the reifications of land, labor, and capital, the ways in which they seem to take on a life of their own? And as he puts it, Marx puts it, Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre do their ghost dance, these spirits dancing in the ether.
Well, I turn to a wonderful work of Fernando Coronil which tries to think about– tries to engage this question as a postcolonial Marxist. And Coronil turns for inspiration to the wonderful line from Borges about why there are no camels in the Quran and that what’s hidden in plain sight there is this is a society in which camels are taken for granted.
And what I want to say about the issues that the blue economy and extractivism point to is that what’s hidden in plain sight is the ocean in extension from Coronil’s way of thinking about the occlusion of nature and of the postcolony from the history of capital, global history of capital. And it’s a complicated thing to lay out in a second.
But Coronil also is trying to get us to think beyond what he calls occidentalism, occidentalist forms of reason that presume a West/Rest binary. And then the scholarship that tries to deal with it to think beyond Eurocentrism either erases the rest in the explanation of the West, or it folds the rest into a rendition of the West, like Europe and the people without history, Eric Wolf.
Or it uses the rest, the global south, the postcolony as a way of destabilizing the story of the West, which may be the Derridean critique, or it’s also how he looks at Tim Mitchell. Right, so how do we think beyond the West/Rest binary entirely to think about a post-occidentalist form of reason? And I bring up– I really broach this question, how do we think beyond a post-terracentric form of reason that also presumes a land, sea binary?
And that’s an opening that I think with. And, of course, also that may be all well and good in terms of our critical diagnosis, but what does it have to do with organizing collective political will, which is really what Gramsci wants us to get to?
And that’s where the last chapter, chapter 4 turns. It’s called The Storm. And there I think about the archives of oceanic struggle, beginning with the strike. Of course, the “strike,” striking the sails down, “affaler,” bringing the sails down, French, Flemish, Dutch sailors inventing this form of this concept in relation to the hostile nature and hostile ships, and then radical seafarers turning this into a political concept of a different kind, and then that spilling out in the pool of London into the general strike.
Abolition, the maritime origins of abolition from the struggles of slaves themselves, the struggles over the notion of the international in the legal struggles around the sea after Bandung, the long set of legal struggles leading up to UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which affects one of the biggest enclosures in the world of the territorial waters which become nationalized. And the deep sea, supposedly a commons, becomes a place for big capital to plunder the ocean bed.
These are in some ways legally concluded, but, of course, the struggles continue and the ongoing struggles around the refusal of planetary ecocide. And I think of these histories of struggle in relation to– I juxtapose them really with Black aqua-futurist art as a way of– and particularly, Drexciya, the wonderful artist Ellen Gallagher, John Akomfrah and his Vertigo Sea. Some of you may have seen it at SFMOMA a few years ago.
To think about this concept in Drexciya of storming and of the political storm. And my argument at the end is that we should think non-sequentially about the strike abolition in the international and the refusal of planetary ecocide, that all these forms of struggle continue to have the possibility of storming different shores in different ways.
That’s the final political and some ways will in that Gramscian way throwing caution to the wind political argument in dire times. That’s where I end. Over to you both.
[LESLIE SALZINGER] Well, thank you for that, Sharad. That was a great summary of what you’re doing here. I think it’s really, really helpful. And yeah, I do feel like for the four of us to be talking about the set of ideas, this is like a real privilege. We’ve done so many forms of political work on campus that are, I think for all four of us, I would say deeply linked to these sets of questions, the sort of a microcosm of larger set of questions of what it means to make a community of thinkers.
And for that to be part of making change, so yeah, it feels lucky to get to be here. Last night Colleen and I checked in briefly and talked for an hour and a half. So we’ll see where this goes.
I thought it would be interesting to start with this question of methods. So what you’re doing here, what it means to think of Gramsci as an oceanic theorist. And in a sense, the question of, is that versus a kind of terracentric theorist, an earthly theorist?
And so as we were talking last night, it felt like you’re doing a, sort of, moving back and forth between working against a major classic binary, which I’ll say a little bit about what I think that might be and refusing it. And so I just want to lay out what the binary might be and then what the interstitial parts might be. And then I’d love to hear you talk about how you think about their relationship with each other.
So there’s a way when you say that Gramsci is an oceanic theorist, you’re thinking of that as connecting, as transnational, as fluid, also as Southern, as subaltern maybe versus the earthly, the terracentric, stagist, static, Northern, Metropolitan maybe. And that’s a very classic binary.
And that seems to hover beneath a lot of what you’re doing. And yet at the same time, you also are interested in this question of the interstitial of the borderline of what you call in the book, or the pamphlet, the terraqueous, the area that’s between the ocean and the sea. And that blurring is also part of the project.
And so I guess I’m curious to hear you think with us about how you think about that methodologically, both really insisting on a certain kind of binary and then really refusing it, but it’s there hovering. This is obviously an old problem, but it comes back because it’s an important one. And I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit.
SHARAD CHARI] Thank you. Just turn this back on. Yeah, that’s a great– that’s a great question. And it’s certainly something that animates this pamphlet because it is only– it’s such a big question, right?
OK, so Gramsci does say that he calls his dialectical– he says he’s interested in a dialectical method that is committed to the absolute earthliness of thought. And it’s something that I think that we have a lot more to think with there. And I don’t– the wonderful thing about Gramsci is he leaves a lot of conversations open for others to pick up. It really requires a world of Gramscians or just a world.
And so what is this earthiness of thought? And thought thinking of that, that’s this complicated chapter 3, that thinking about the land/sea binary is not something that can be done away with in theory. What is it? And it’s not exactly analogous to the relation between Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre. But it’s connected to how we think about landed property, rents. There’s a whole question of rents here that is lurking in the background as well.
The question of capital accumulation through the ocean is fundamentally a question of rents, whether it’s around– and of negotiating those rents through the state, through the interstate system. That’s also part of it. And so I think it’s in that area that that’s one area that I think is productive to explore further to open up the power of the binary.
It connected, of course, you’re right to the idea of Gramsci’s concern with the subaltern. I think these things go together, by the way. The earthliness and the subalternity are intertwined as well. There’s been a mistaken– mistaken sounds too party, you know, deviationist. But the turn to hone in the question of the subaltern on identity has been a certain kind of blind spot.
And so the question of earthliness and subalternity I think we have to think together. That also means that when Spivak backtracks about her own trajectory and says planetarity is underived from us, and this is somehow a continuation of the question of subaltern. There’s a Marxist path not taken there as well in thinking about earthliness in relation to that unfinished question of the subaltern.
Global South, I was thinking about this when you said the South, how long we’ve tarried with this concept of the global South and never quite got there. And so it’s always a fudge, right? We always think, OK, we know it’s here as well, it’s here and there. It’s a failed concept in a certain way.
But yeah, I think that’s what I have to say so far about this. The terraqueous– I know I’ve struggled in that chapter 3 with finding an exemplary text that tells a Marxist terraqueous account that actually engages with the power of land/sea reification in a way.
[COLLEEN LYE] Let me jump in here because I had similar questions about method. Everything’s about method in some ways. And ultimately, I want to get to metaphor as a method because, well, why? Because I’m a literary critic but just backing up to since there was this question about where did my PhD.
I did do my PhD– I first read Gramsci actually during the First Intifada with Said at Columbia, who has been on my mind a lot lately because it was a time when Said and Columbia were synonymous in terms of what it meant to be doing critical, intellectual work at the university.
And we seem to be in a very different moment obviously regarding Columbia and postcolonial theory. So these things come to mind inevitably as I’m reading Gramsci now. I’m reading Gramsci through Sharad’s reading of Gramsci, also in a different moment of Gramsci’s studies from that moment of British cultural studies reception in the US so mediated by postcolonial theory and the Saidian inflection of what Gramsci meant to be an American third-worldist academic in the humanities at that time of, OK, this is how old I am, late ’80s, early ’90s.
So this brings me back then to actually– this is going to connect to the question of the binary, OK, and the kind of work because I do think that– OK, first of all, I did want to situate for those of you who don’t know that I feel like that Sharad’s intervention here with his pamphlet is part of a conversation of a revival in Gramsci studies now that marks a different kind of approach to Gramsci that is associated with the so-called philological turn, so somewhat different from the British cultural studies reception of Gramsci at that time in the ’80s and ’90s.
And this philological turn both makes it more textual, closer to the kind of literary work that we were attempting to do at the time but also weirdly in a way further away insofar as this philological turn right now in Gramsci’s study seems to be happening, not in literature departments so much, but in political theory, maybe geography. So there’s this weird disjuncture in terms of where the literary is and the textuality of approaching Gramsci vis-a-vis the so-called philological turn.
So this is a different kind of disjuncture in our current conjuncture that I feel animated by in approaching reading Sharad, who seems very literary to me maybe because we’re generationally closer in a way. So he’s a bit of an odd man out, I feel like, in this philological conversation. He’s more literary than a lot of that philological conversation, I feel like, on Gramsci’s studies.
But then at the same time, I’ll just say biographically I’m moving more towards the conceptual. So my approach is like, I want to hammer in on the conceptual. So I’m going to be like, coming back metaphor concept.
OK, so sorry, long preamble but this is where I’m coming at vis-a-vis the question of the binary. So maybe one way for me to– OK, so where I’m coming at this after studying with Said and Spivak at Columbia was to work on Pax Americana actually since you raised that already, right?
And so for me, the interest of coming to Gramscian, Americanism, and Fordism, and then your approach to Gramsci via thinking about America as empire as almost in a regent frame, a kind of successor to British empire in the 19th century. How do we think about the post frontier? Is the American expansion across the Pacific after so-called declaration of the end of the frontier in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner, do we understand that?
So now metaphorically, do we understand that as a post-frontier moment insofar as the extension across the Pacific is a kind of displacement of the logic of the continental frontier? Or is it an extension of the logic of that continental frontier into the Philippines, Spanish-American war and then so on and so forth, right?
So that’s to then come back in a way– that’s one concrete way in which I want to ask you that question similar to the sort of question that Leslie was asking about how do we think about– how are you thinking about Gramsci as a dialectician of a more fluid sort that is not, in fact, a kind of Laclau and Mouffean version of Gramsci as short circuiting dialectics?
But you use the term Thai dialectics to name a more fluid kind of dialectics. And I have more to say about that if my version is different from what you’re going to say as a way of thinking sublation in a more fluid way.
And I raise the Pax Americana as a post-frontier thing as a concrete example because it’s interesting because I would think of the literal as a way of remaining with liminal spaces, but then a lot of your examples are really more deep sea, I feel like, where the sea is a contradictory social space of a blue economy that cannot completely be captured by capital accumulation.
And so in that sense, it seems like you’re turning to the sea as a space itself with its own specific dynamics that’s quite different from the land, which means that I don’t think you’re simply lingering with the liminal or the literal in order to interrupt a binary so as to deconstruct it. So sorry, is that a lot of clues?
[SHARAD CHARI] It’s a lot of– yeah. All in different ways about method and literary method. My own path– my own entry drug to Gramsci was in this building with Michael Burawoy. And Michael Burawoy’s the Church of Gramsci was probably a Marxist church.
But it was so compelling and useful for so many of us to bring in– to think about Gramscian concepts, to bring them to life in a Marxist critique of political economy that was lived in parallel to the socialist street. It’s a similar kind of move to think about.
In fact, these are parallel trajectories, Marxism and social history, Marxism through Burawoy and the kind of ethnographic political economy. These are parallel trajectories, and they connect as well.
Very different from Said. And I dug up this paper on Said talk on Gramsci and Lukacs, which I got from the Said archives. If anyone wants it, I can send it to you. Please email me. I think it’s very interesting and thoughtful.
But it did get me thinking that Said was interested in what Gramsci thought of as his philological approach. And what that meant, given the trajectory that I come at Gramsci, given this sort of materialist trajectory, it meant something different. For me, what it pointed to– well, on his concept metaphors, he works with them, and he elaborates them as he says. And he labors with them and transforms them, leaves some aside, goes on with others.
And you can see that when you read across the notes. And that’s one gift, so you don’t look for fixed concepts, which I think the sociological approach we tended to think this is how you define hegemony, this is how you– and I think this processual approach to its concepts is perhaps useful in thinking also about how hegemony itself is transforming in our time and in different domains. And so the concepts transform with the objects of analysis. That’s also what Gramsci is interested in.
And returning to that 1859 passage from– he has these little passages he keeps going back to, right? And that passage from Marx is about how do we figure out the problem space we’re interested in? It’s emergent in relation to the problems we face. And the solutions emerge alongside the problems.
But then this ciphering those is not a purely intellectual task. It’s not simply about sitting in Columbia University. It’s about learning from the oppressed and learning from– that’s then the task which the social historians and the ethnographers were doing in a particular way. It doesn’t exhaust the ways they we can do it, but I think then if thinking philologically is not reducible to language and abstraction, which is never Gramsci’s interest, right? It’s always lived language.
When he writes– in the final years, he writes his family to send them the latest folklore or send them folklore. He’s trying to compile an arsenal for his conception of what it would take to organize collective political will as a social historian, as an ethnographer would.
But something else is lurking in the background here, which is not so much a background for a geographer. It’s the foreground. It’s the question of space and time and how prior space times are drawn into the new. So the question of sublation in a materialist sense, that’s part of what this kind of, if you want, a broader sense of the philological is trying to get at.
I think it’s also genealogical. Conrad Hart and I have a dispute about this. But his dialectical method is also about drawing in prior space times into the new. I think that’s also what the category racial capitalism really is fumbling with. It’s not just about the racist ideology. It’s about prior space times drawn into the new and that then with their symbolic and ideological and various other aspects.
And that’s why Gramsci is interested in folklore, and that’s what he’s trying to then think through how to radicalize those forms, how to bring them out of the realm of doxa into the realm of critique. And so something about philology, something about this idea, the concept matter of metaphor of philological method is useful for something we call the social sciences as if they’re abstracted from humanities.
That is then– that points to something broader about a method for thinking about prior socio-spatial forms is always conserved in the new, something like that. And I think of that as a kind of oceanic form. That’s the provocation.
I’m willing to hear you say that because that’s how I read you as well but yes.
[JAMES VERNON] And if anyone wants to come in before 1 o’clock, just put your hand up. Let me know. But Leslie, can you go on?
[LESLIE SALZINGER] Of course. Sure, yes, for those of you who have not read this yet, the pamphlet itself is very– it wanders in a very poetic way. And I feel like there’s a way in which our conversation is following that genre, which I think is nice.
Being the kind of person I am, though, I’m like, where? But what precisely do you mean here? So I have a question about how you understand the idea of the oceanic as useful in reading Gramsci. In a way, this is just going back to the same thing, but I want to hear you expand on it.
So sometimes it’s metaphorical and stylistic. Gramsci is an ocean of notes. He clearly is playing. He’s not tying things down. You’re inspired by that in certain ways, and there’s a way in which understanding his thought as fluid is part of what you’re doing.
But then there are ways in which the ocean’s material existence is that thinking about the ocean forces one to think about the transnational. The ocean is a connector between nation states. You go, they overflow their boundaries by definition.
You have a fascinating part which I knew nothing about the legal structure of the ocean and the continental shelf, and who controls it, and nation states get to control the top but they don’t control the bottom. And so when you harvest things from the ocean, you’re always moving through nation states. So it’s a deeply enriched image of the way capital works through the ocean space, which is different in important ways than the way capital works on land.
And so I guess I’m still just– I just want to hear you talk more about which sides of that are more interesting to you or maybe more importantly, how those two sides, which you’re clearly interested in both, the fluidity of the language, thinking fluidly, and thinking what it means to actually think about the ocean with Gramsci, how those speak to each other and illuminate Gramsci’s thought more generally.
[SHARAD CHARI] Thank you. So in the most direct way of answering, the most direct answer is that when he literally talks about, when you just do word searches and find his notes on oceanic matters, what becomes apparent is that he is not just a thinker who is– he’s not a thinker who is recognizable in much of Gramsci studies, at least in the social sciences, which is who is a methodological nationalist?
Gramsci is often thought of in a national frame partly because of the regulation theory and the way it had read Gramsci or used Gramsci maybe. And so I thought that was interesting for one key.
There are some insights that are surprising and exciting, but that’s one of the big things that I thought he’s interested in a different kind of– he’s interested in imperialism and in a surprising way.
Secondly, that then got me to think about what he says when you think about a thinker, you’ve got to think about their leitmotifs, their forms of thought. And so then I said, OK, well, every time he talks about the things that really matter to him, when he gets into, he says he’s trying to figure out his own predicament or what has happened in Italy, let’s say.
We think of that as a national argument, but then he tells it, and he does what seems like a potted history in some ways. This is what happened after the French Revolution. This is what happens to Jacobinism after the French Revolution. This is what happens at the Risorgimento, and this is how the Risorgimento fails to achieve certain aims and produce something else.
And then you see something else, a different kind of spatial temporal object of analysis, which is accumulative. It’s trying to get an analytical point about a complex, dense, historical, spatial historical conjuncture and its remains as they accumulate in a particular direction. Presumably, there are all sorts of other directions.
I thought that form of thought is also in– it has that feel of an oceanic form of thought and also the sense of the kind of resurgence. Then when you think about his arguments about what is to be done– what is to be done for critical diagnosis and for politics, how do we steer clear of the shoals of economism and idealism?
He has a surprising thing about the levels of analysis, and it’s not a stratigraphy. That would seem like it’s a stratigraphy, but it’s not. And he says that, not in those terms.
And he also says what we should look for is the moment when the organic erupts into the conjunctural. What does that mean? Again, there’s some kind of– I call a kind of oceanic concept metaphor in its form. So formally and in terms of content, there’s something exciting here that is different from how we usually read Gramsci.
[COLLEEN LYE] I’m going to try to answer for him.
[SHARAD CHARI] No, you can subtract as well.
[COLLEEN LYE] I just want to add. So I think that’s right actually because I was having trouble grasping your argument precisely because it is very associative and metaphoric. You’re arguing through metaphor, right? This is the style of your argument.
I kept asking myself as I was reading this like, what are you– how do you follow through? It’s not like an expository essay. You’re not arguing through in a standard, academic way.
But what you just said confirmed my hunch that there is an intervention here conceptually through the metaphor of working through the ocean– and you can disagree with my reading, the ocean as both matter and form. You are interested. I feel like you’re toggling back and forth between thinking about ocean as matter that forces us to constantly come up against the impossibility of its enclosure, right? A space that refuses enclosure but also is continually subject to exploitation as the continual frontier where exploitation and exploitability is coming up against its limit.
And on the other hand, how is it also in that refusal and continual movement also a form of thought that interestingly makes us not simply associate fluidity, the oceanic with fluidity versus fixity of land, which is to say that what I got from your emphasis on thinking sublation in the fluid way was the emphasis not simply on the preservation of past forms of oppression but also past forms of struggle, past forms of counter-hegemonic popular folk ways that resist.
And it seemed to me that conceptually, that was your contribution to current debates and racial capitalism. And by revisiting the agrarian question within the Marxist tradition, as you say, which is very good on thinking about the uneven persistence of formal subsumption and uneven development, but your interesting appreciation for Gramsci’s Leninism actually forces us– and this is where I want to just bring out for people who haven’t read the pamphlet yet, that your focus specifically on waves and currents you say–
Yeah, that section.
You say, “Waves on the surface–” this is a quote, “Waves on the surface come and go capriciously, but deep down there’s a strong historical current, right?” So that’s your way of–
[SHARAD CHARI] That’s Gramsci.
[COLLEEN LYE] OK, yeah, you quote in your book. And so your reading of that is that Gramsci’s break– that is Gramsci’s break with mechanistic materialism and Marxist tradition or his own way of thinking about structure and superstructure. And then you say, “In studying structure, let’s distinguish organic movements, the relatively permanent–” that’s the currents, “–from movements which may be termed occasional, immediate, almost accidental, the waves, right?”
So OK, here’s where I feel like your metaphor is more than just a metaphor, it’s also a concept. It’s the matter but also the concept. And then you say on page 17, the sublimation of the spirit of Jacobinism points to submerged legacies of popular struggle that might surface at various opportune moments.
OK, good. So what’s interesting is that if pelagic imperialism cannot really accumulate on the sea in the same way that it can easily accumulate on land, and that’s part of the resistance to a continuous accumulation, then it seems like you’re countering the pelagic imperialism, which is someone else’s term, I forget who, with this idea of a different idea of base superstructure in a more fluid sense that also conserves past struggles.
And so yeah, so I just wanted to emphasize the preservation of the past but the preservation not of past forms of oppression re-adapted to present forms of exploitation but past forms of sequence of popular struggles, which also seems super relevant for our present.
[SHARAD CHARI] Thanks, Colleen. There’s a book that haunts the pamphlet. It doesn’t exist, so don’t worry. It’s a book that– so I’ve been doing research in the Southern African, Indian Ocean region, and Mauritius, Réunion, ports of Mozambique and trying to figure out what is this about, and I thought I’d hinge it on the idea of the blue economy.
And I wrote this partly to figure out where I am, what I want to think about. And it’s around these issues. So really, to properly answer, you have to work through that, elaborate through that material and those struggles.
So I’ll give you one example of one of the sites. Mauritius has the sort of very mythologized and highly symbolically overloaded region, which is the place of maroonage. And that’s where the annual march to commemorate the end of the slave trade ends there, with Rastafarians actually leading the way in the Indian Ocean.
And anyway, that archives of the end of the slave trade in this particular corner of where the Black Atlantic and the Indian Ocean intersect. There’s a thriving illegal slave trade after the end of the formal slave trade, with ships changing names and people changing names and continuing to trafficking humans in this.
And I found someone– amazing stuff about the way in which people are trafficked through the infrastructure of that perfect in, back traffic back in the landscape of maroonage. And there’s a site which refuses some kind of determinism around what maroonage looks like, what those shoals, the land space, land-sea interface.
Here is not a place of freedom but also a place of re-enslavement, which requires one to work through the concrete material. That’s how I would work through some of this with, where I had to actually write a book.
And then the other thing that I thought of, yeah, so fluidity fixity is, of course, another dialectical relation that has to be thought through concretely. And that passage that you read from Gramsci is, of course, also an engagement through oceanic metaphors of Marx and Marx’s 1857 introduction to the Grundrisse and the notion of a rising to the concrete of deeper relations that the mistake is of thinking of that in some kind of layering. So I think these are– it’s also about rereading Marx methodologically.
[JAMES VERNON] I’m going to throw it open to other people in the–
[LESLIE SALZINGER] James, before you do, I just want to say one thing. I know we’re at time. But I just think one thing about this pamphlet that’s wonderful is that it just shows us the virtues of going back to great theorists over and over again. And that this is so clearly a reading from now from a time of climate crisis and from a time in which discussions of racial capitalism– so it’s just very much a reading from this moment. And I just think that’s really interesting and wonderful.
[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hi, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about if we accept Colleen’s reading or if we think about the oceanic in terms of form and matter, what happens to organic intellectuals? Because that seems like he sets up conjunctural versus organic and the task of separating those two where all things appear conjunctural and identifying that Jacobin spirit, identifying conjuncture seems to be the duty of the party. And it’s collected in the modern prince chapter of that anthology so yeah.
I just wondered also, if we’re reading Gramsci again towards this sort of Leninism, I wonder in the light of what happened to his reception in workerist Italy that he was ultimately rejected because of what happened to the PCI and the party and its effect on the Italian working class, that he became an enemy of Italian communism in the ’60s. Yeah, I guess I just wondered if that sparked something.
[SHARAD CHARI] What do we make of the organic intellectual and the modern prince? The organic intellectual I point to is Pip in Moby-Dick, the young Black cabin boy who falls into the sea. And all the– Ellen Gallagher is interested in Pip. C.L.R James is interested in Pip.
But when we read Pip now, I’m struck that– so Pip falls into the sea. And the first time he falls in from the whaling boat, they rescue him. And the second time the guy says, if you fall in again, your life isn’t worth it rescuing basically.
The whales are much more– the whales are more lucrative than you would cost– than you would fetch if I were to sell you again in Alabama, something like that. There’s a reference to this. This is still the Fugitive Slave Act is still in the background and so on.
And he falls in. And the second time he falls in, he’s abandoned and then he’s plucked out of the sea, but he’s never the same. And he’s this figure who has seen something, and he is also the only person that Ahab listens to and sees as the voice of reason.
This is a kind of Shakespearean figure in some ways, right, but also– and not quite an answer to the modern prince because they have the modern princess. It doesn’t come together in Moby-Dick, actually. But Pip is that figure who has seen something.
Also, Ellen Gallagher is interested in Pip as a figure who sees the climate catastrophe. What does that mean? What is the organic intellectual if young Delio, Gramsci’s child, grows up and can regard the teeming life of the sea in a different way than the party could? What does that mean? That’s part of it, I think, what is an ecological modern– what is a planetary modern France?
[AUDIENCE MEMBER] OK. Yeah, thank you very much for the extremely thoughtful and stimulating presentation and discussion. Thinking about oceans over time and the Atlantic Ocean but also the Mediterranean Sea over time during the lengthy period of slavery, British slavery in the Caribbean and the lengthy period of British imperialism.
So thinking literally about a littoral zone, I did work on the salt on the rice production in the rural, the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina, which produced more than 90% of rice that was produced in the United States and had a very distinctive plantation labor regime. So I’m curious about that in terms of the binary and breaking down the binary. So that’s during the period of slavery.
But during imperialism, working again from my hometown Liverpool and the role it played in slavery but also in West Africa, the oil rivers region, where the Brits initially thought there was one river but thought there were multiple rivers. Well, I forget how they got confused. I’m getting confused now.
But it turns out that there are multiple strands, and these zones, they have their own labor regimes because the big ships can’t go in. And they employ mainly male but some female. So there are two littoral littorals that act, and I wonder how they– I got it from you. It’s very imaginative. I’m very appreciative. I’ve made some notes for future use.
But my second– so that’s one question for reflections. But my second one is that geography, as I see it, is the home of Black geography in this country. And I wonder what Gramsci had to say about the Mediterranean and what the people writing about Black geographies are saying about the Mediterranean.
I know it’s a big place. It’s a sea. It’s not an ocean. But I wonder if there are ways in which thinking about Gramsci enables us to think about the Black Mediterranean as a very different zone from the Black Atlantic. Thanks very much.
[SHARAD CHARI] Well, we do have one of our rising stars in Black geographies. Camilla Hawthorne works on the Black Mediterranean. Yeah, we learn from the work of supervision. Yeah, so let’s see. Can I answer about how I– a lot of what you offered were comments.
But Gramsci’s relation to Blackness is an interesting one. And I engage Frank Wilderson’s response in his essay Gramsci’s Black Marx. The way that I think the essay calls for– the essay begins with an axiomatic refusal of the possibility of Black Marxism. It’s a death sentence, literally, the first sentence.
And I think it’s actually not a useful way to read. Gramsci is strangely– I looked and I found sites, places where he’s totally racist about Black music and Black popular culture. For someone who’s so excited about popular culture, that’s interesting.
So what is this aphasia– not aphasia, what is this blindness? What is going on there? I think Fumi Okiji here is, for me, the person to think with, the way she reads Adorno’s blindness to jazz and reads that as a way of reading Jazz as Critique, as she puts it, and Adorno’s deafness in relation. That’s exciting to me. Well, that’s what I suggest is possible.
And then it’s interesting that that’s my segue into thinking about Drexciya, which emerges in the ruins of Fordism. Gramsci doesn’t see that despite having been in the common term around the discussion of the Negro question that Claude McKay brought to the Comintern. He doesn’t engage it, and it is an emergent in the Americanism and Fordism essay as it probably should.
So he would have heard it and known it, so it’s strange. But so there is some deafness or aphasia or something, right? That’s how I try to think about that.
But I don’t think it’s a death sentence because this is the Gramsci, the young Gramsci in revolution against capital warns against deifying Marx because the Bolsheviks didn’t follow a prescription there. We should do the same with Gramsci, right? We should open up many forms of reading, which then takes us back to the importance of reading or doing a reading, which is what he always does.
[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Thank you so much for this. So I’m going to return in my disciplinary role to the question of metaphor as method, partly because you talk about one of my favorite moments in Freud early on, which is the oceanic feeling. And I wanted to think about whether or not the oceanic is in fact metaphoric in this moment and what that might do for your later use of the oceanic.
Because while Freud and Rolland dramatically disagree about what the oceanic feeling can be and who might have it, it is for both of them, not a metaphor. They understand that the oceanic feeling is phenomenological and it’s psychic.
And I’m wondering if that materiality of the oceanic feeling might be a way to return to oceanic Marxism, which is where you take us, right? You go from the oceanic feeling to oceanic Marxism. So I’m wondering about materiality and the body as we move from feeling to, let’s say, politics.
And the reason I’m thinking with you quite in a current is because of your example of Pip right now. Because when you say that Pip returns having seen something, this is actually the story that Rolland is reading right of Ramakrishna.
He says, the salt doll goes into the ocean to measure the depths, and he finds that he’s become one with the ocean, except the actual story is that most cannot return. And sometimes the salt doll comes back but cannot say what he has seen, right? That there is something about having seen something that you cannot say that seems essential to the movement between, let’s say, the affective, or even the perceptual and the political.
[SHARAD CHARI] Thank you. That’s brilliant. I realize that I just threw that out at some point as a question, what would Gramsci have done with the oceanic feeling? He wouldn’t have– and I think he would have done something. And even that little letter to his son indicates something.
In terms of his reading of– Freud’s reading of Rolland I would need to think more about it. But I’m with you on this point. I do think– I’m sure he would do something. I think he would have to interrogate Rolland’s Orientalism, right? And that would then make him– would have to make him question what he thinks of as absolute secularization of thought today. We would have to think about that differently.
But primary narcissism, that wouldn’t be the direction he would go. But there’s something else that is possible. I’d like to talk to you more about this. I appreciate the provocation. Thank you.
[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Quick question in the middle. First, thanks so much. This panel is great, and I can’t wait to go out and get your book, which I will read, I think, with great enthusiasm and pleasure. Here’s the question. What– and I don’t mean to be– I don’t want to involve myself in the theological term.
But in the Gramsci texts, what is the word in Italian for ocean? Is it mare? Because if it is mare, then the map gets redefined, right? Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean. And it doesn’t mean that the readings are different, but there is a colonial space marked out.
I’m thinking of this really in retrospection from contemporary debates about the Mediterranean as a site of unity and connection. And also, that brings in race as well, and it also brings in the emigration from Italy. But anyway, that was just my question which could supplement your proposals, which are, of course great. But anyway, wanted to know what you thought about ocean and mare.
[SHARAD CHARI] I don’t know actually. Maybe some of the– maybe some other– I’m not sure what that carries. I’m not sure what– he does use– the translated terms you can find are the sea and maritime and the ocean as well both for different things.
The ocean is in that section on the Pacific and the shift in the global– in the axis of geopolitics, something like that. But I’d have to think about the– one would have to think about the entailments in this method and the entailments within the act of translation. I take your point. I appreciate it.
[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hey, there, Sharad. Thank you so much for your talk. My name is William. I’m a geography PhD student. And I wanted to– I had two questions. And the first was on a phrase that kept on coming up.
The idea that terracentrism presupposes a land/sea binary. And through this, I was thinking– I immediately went to Kevin Dawson’s work and undercurrents of power and his use of the term waterscapes or aquascapes to get out of this binary between the rivers and the swamps and the sea.
And as you were talking, I was thinking that if we do take the sea as our framework and we take maritime lens, that could exclude a lot of aquatic material culture, particularly in the continent. So if we look at West Africa, prior to 1600s, you had a lot of interior travel on the lagoons and the rivers and the latrines but not necessarily out to sea. And so if we focus on the maritime, we exclude their material history.
So I was thinking about if terracentrism does presuppose a land/sea binary, then what does it mean to use waterscapes or aquascapes to rethink this binary in this way? And just you know, I’m thinking about method. If we’re looking at slave ships, we can still see wrecks in the sea. If we’re looking at canoes, they’ve all rotted, right?
And the second question I had was related to this is one thing that comes up in terracentric histories is periodization and this impulse to periodize, particularly according to anodyne timescales. And I was thinking about what focusing on aquatics, what focusing on the sea can help do to refuse periodization and how you deal with that.
[SHARAD CHARI] Thanks. Well, I’ve read some of Kevin Dawson’s articles about slave surfing and all that. I actually didn’t turn to him in this piece because I didn’t think he was engaging, but I haven’t read the book. I don’t know what he does in the book.
And I did actually say incorrectly earlier that I didn’t find exemplary works that are wrestling with thinking beyond the land/sea binary. I do find several– I thought Stephanie Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery is very interesting for thinking about– and one could read it or thinking about some of what you’re asking for, the connections between the oceanic and the canoes and so on and the canoe trade and also the aftermath in the US and saltwater slaves, slaves marked by recent passage.
And I was thinking about some other texts that try to– but I think this is an area of work that your dissertation will be an interesting addition to this hopefully, yeah.
[AUDIENCE MEMBER] OK, thank you for this panel. Since I’m coming last, I’m going to ask the dystopian climate future question. Someone had to do it. OK, so in two parts.
So part one is the origin story or myth or story of eco-Marxism is that Marx is interested in soil science. And from that comes this concept of the metabolism. And so then now eco-Marxism is about the metabolic rift.
And hearing you all talk makes me think that there’s maybe something to interrogate there about a land bias to the metabolic rift and then to what eco-Marxism thinks about and how that metaphor organizes eco-Marxist thoughts.
The second part is if we think about the ocean and the future of the ocean, I wonder if you think it is the land-ocean dialectic or Thai dialectic is qualitatively similar to what it is now. So in the future, a notion with probably radical reduction in its own biodiversity from carbon absorption, potentially much hotter in many ways is like the shock absorber of both carbon and heat but also the tormentor of society because the hurricanes, much stronger storms, wetter.
And then most importantly, maybe sea level rise could mean the elimination of every single beach in the world. Seems virtually certain in the absence of geoengineering that 5 feet of sea level rise of course wipes out all the beaches. So how does the future of the ocean inform a different kind of eco-Marxism or eco-socialism?
[JAMES VERNON] You got five minutes, four minutes.
[SHARAD CHARI] Yeah, well, I can only go back to optimism of the intellect, right? Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect. He gets that from Rolland but right. The political challenges to refuse this future but it is a future that is in the near– it’s in the near future.
It’s a future we cannot avoid.
Yeah. That is the challenge that Aravamudan poses for us, but he also then go back to that initial quotation that the shadow of impending ecological disaster leaps over today and reunites with abandoned conceptions of human finitude from a past rich with apocalyptic nightmares that the enlightenment and temporarily vanquished.
But that presumes that forms of response to this predicament are going to be varied if we take sublation of prior struggles, prior cultural forms, prior socio spatial, prior land/sea, prior dialectics. Seriously, there is no point in hoping for a singular modern prince. This is the time, if ever, to think about united front in research as well as in politics, right?
But methodologically, that is actually quite an interesting opening for us. If one takes our modern position seriously that prior forms continue to shape multiple ways of meeting this challenge, that’s an abstract way of engaging.
[JAMES VERNON] I think a good place to end at least somehow. Join me in thanking this panel for a wonderful time.